The graphic novel has become ubiquitous in American Culture. This medium has carved a niche out of the literary landscape to such a degree that authors from other genres of literature have sought to emulate it. Film adaptations from graphic novel source material now make billions annually at the box office thanks to the comic book industry. Yet, despite the graphic novel's omnipresence in our culture, it is a rather new mode of narrative. Few people know who is considered the father of the American Graphic Novel: Lynd Ward.
There are biographies written about Lynd Ward which will lay out his life and times much more eloquently and thoroughly than I ever will. There is even a documentary, O Brother Man, which is simultaneously engrossing and informative on 20th century America. I have embedded an extended trailer below, and I recommend watching it. What i hope to do in this article is highlight some of the more interesting facits of his life and breifly outline a few of his seminol works.
You can't really get an idea of who Lynd Ward was if you don't understand who his father was. Henry F. Ward (1873-1966) was a larger than life British born American. Born in the outskirts of London, the recipient of a boarding school education as befit his families' upper-class status. His father was a businessmen as well as a Methodist minister. Henry would follow in is fathers footsteps as a minister but took on very different views on Capitalism. At the age of 17, he emigrated to America to further his education. He landed in Los Angeles and was accepted to USC . He became enamored with political science and the writings of Karl Marx. He transferred to North Western where he majored in Philosophy and minored in political science seeking to combine the ideals of populist Christian evangelism and Communism. He became an influential member of the American Communist Party and the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. His work constantly had him and his family moving about the US and Canada and often left him at odds with law enforcement.
It was in this climate that Lynd was born. Soon after Lynd was born, the boy developed tuberculosis. His father took a year long sabbatical and moved his family from the working poor of Chicago to Sault Sainte Marie, Canada. Lynd recovered but would deal with health problems throughout his childhood. Finally settling in New Jersey, ward graduated highschool and enrolled in Columbia. In 1926, upon graduation, he married May McNeer (who was the first female graduate of the University of Georgia) and went to Europe where Lynd worked and studied in Germany as a craftsman. He learned wood etching, lithography, and engraving in his apprenticeships. He was particularly taken with the idea of a wordless book after reading The Sun (1919) by Frans Masereel.
Ward began creating in earnest when he returned to the United States the following year. He published a series of wordless novels out of woodcuts: God's Man (1929), Madman's Drum (1930), Wild Pilgrimage (1932), Prelude to a Million Years (1933), A Song Without Words (1936), and Vertigo (1937). These works together tell an over arching narrative of the plight of the working man, the dangers of excess, and ultimate redemption. Recognized as the first wordless novels produced in America, it would grow to spawn what would become the graphic novel genre.
Lynd was even more talented with the pen and pencil than he was with a wood chisel. He wrote several children's books. He might be best known for his wordless book The Silver Pony (1974) which depicts a dreaming boy finding a Pegasus in his fathers apple orchard. He flies around the world seeing sights that he could only visit in his minds eye. When he wakes, he found that his father had actually got him a silver pony of his very own.
My first exposure to Ward was as a child reading The Biggest Bear (1952) in my grandparents trailer in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The vibrant detail of a small rifle wielding boy holding out a sugar cube to a small cub struck me even as a child. It's a tale of innocence and even a clash of ideologies. A boy felt shame that his father and grandfather hadn't ever killed a bear while all the other men in their village brought home trophies every year. The boy determines to kill a bear for his family's honor, but instead finds a small orphaned bear cub that has a taste for maple sugar. The boy and his family take in the bear, which soon grows out outlive it's welcome in the town. The neighbors demand that the bear be taken care of. The boy sets out three times with his bear to release into the wild, but each time the bear returns. The boys father decides the bear needs to be killed, and the boy decides he must be the one to do it. Before the deed is done however, the bear gets caught in a trap set by some city folk who want to bring the bear to a zoo. The boy then gets to bring maple sugar to the bear whenever he visits the city.
To me, Lynd Ward is more than just an accomplished writer and artist. He lived during politically tumultuous times in US history where workers rights and civil liberties were anything but guaranteed. He never had the gifts for public speaking that his father had, his writings and art depict much of the same progressive ideology that his father espoused. Though his idyllic depictions of the simple agrarian life may be a bit nieve in a post-modern world, he still manages to spark my imagination and stir my empathy for the less fortunate. So while he is known as the "father" of the American graphic novel, to me he will always be an icon worth emulating.